In some ethical views it is always wrong to take certain actions. For example some would say it is always wrong to lie or kill. However in order for this to be true, this rule must be sufficiently important as to override any other ethical obligation. In the example of it always being wrong to lie, this would mean it was not okay to lie even if it would save someones life. This seems to lead to at most one absolute rule in ethics, as there cannot be multiple absolute rules without the possibility of them contradicting each other.

I have no doubt that some will adhere completely to an absolute ethical rule. (Most noticeably pacifists) However I am not clear on what logical argument can be used to justify such a position, if you consider situations where killing or hurting one person may save many more. Surely there is less evil in one individual dying that many.

So what I am curious is if anyone can explain to me what justification different philosophies use to justify absolute rules in ethics.

To clarify, I am more interested in philosophies that include an absolute rule against certain actions, not ones that contain an absolute core principle to govern multiple rules. (For example pacifists who will not fight under any condition, even if it saves lives. Interesting answers though.)

  • Maybe I'm not getting it, but I believe my answer even as originally posted answers the question you are asking even if with its edit. Can you be clearer as to either what you find inadequate in the answers or what's driving the question? – virmaior Sep 14 '17 at 8:44

There's a lot going on in your question which makes sense considering you're expressing that you don't get where some people are coming from. I will try to address two of the things you raise and hope that this answers what you meant to ask.

Problem 1: Absolute Standards

When you doubt the logic of absolute standards in ethics, I think the trick to all such views lies in a rejection of:

Surely there is less evil in one individual dying that many.

Reworded, this means that you subscribe to a quantitative approach to good and evil. Generally, this means a consequentialist approach to ethics where the value of an action is judged by whether or not it produces the "best" consequences (where best could be any of a variety of things, such as maximizing happiness, maximizing freedom, or minimizing pain).

Approaches to ethics that assert absolute values reject the idea that all ethical goods can be quantified. Instead, they take it as prima facie that some ethical goods cannot be sacrificed regardless of other consequences.

A practical example might help here. On a merely quantitative approach, the answer to the following type of thought experiment is crystal clear:

IF you could go back in time and kill Pol Pot when he was 5 years old before he murdered all those people and made Cambodia suffer, should you do it?

Assuming our one principle is minimizing suffering, then this absolutely seems like the right thing to do. But many of us would question the rightness of killing a five-year old regardless of the probable future of that five year old. (I don't here want to debate the merits of these views -- just mention their takes). On such accounts, there are values that are absolute and should be extended to say all sentient beings such as the right to live until they are violating the rights of others.

A further consideration in this problem is that consequentialist and utilitarian views are not immune to it. Instead, they seem committed to asserting some quantity is qualitatively valuable (Why should we care about suffering it lacks objective importance?)

Problem 2: Conflicting Principles

A second issue you raise is the question of conflicting principles. This is a common objection to Kant's ethics. Sometimes the objection is raised is confused terms that misunderstand what Kant is doing, so we'll skip over Kant and the specific issues his moral philosophy raises.

If we instead look at Aristotle, there are multiple qualitative features that are important for being ethical. Some times they do conflict but then we need to balance them based on what adheres to a life of excellence -- something which Aristotle claims someone with moral wisdom can do.

A second approach, which is Kant's, is to reject the claim that these things can come into conflict. Kant's trick is complex but we can boil it down (for the purposes of responding to your objection) to qualitatively valuing reason in free rational creatures above all else and to understanding ethics as the application of reason to questions of action.

a further consideration is that again consequentialist views do not lack conflicts in principles. Mill's Utilitarianism asserts that actions are good to the extent they promote happiness and bad to the extent they promote unhappiness, but he also incorporates at least two other principles that seem in conflict with this. First, in the same text, he tries to claim there's a distinction in types of pleasure based on what should make us happy. Second, in On Liberty (and elsewhere), he asserts that we cannot harm anyone to maximize happiness -- but this means there's two principles in his consequentialist view: the greatest happiness principle and the harm principle.

In other words, conflicting principles seems to be a nearly endemic problem... but generally a problem asserted by the critics of any particular view which the defenders (leaving aside Kant's approach) think indicates multiple but non-contradictory values.


Note well, I'm not saying you need to accept these views. Instead, I would say:

  1. Views that think there are inviolable principles usually do so on qualitative grounds rather than quantitative ones.
  2. The conflict of principles problem is a common objection but not identical to a proof that there aren't multiple things we value.


To clarify based on the OPs addition to their question, philosophical accounts that have absolute principles use these to create absolute prohibitions on certain actions.

For instance, if you believe it is always wrong to use violence presumably you believe so because you think doing violence is qualitatively an absolute wrong that cannot be cancelled out by some other benefit (i.e. you cannot match quality with any quantity).

To repeat, the justification is following Kant precisely that you take something to be of absolute worth and set this in contrast with things that have a price. Things of absolute worth are not subject to calculation.

For instance if you take intelligent life to be of absolute value (qualitative claim), include dolphins in the definition of absolute value (empirical claim), then you conclude there's an absolute prohibition on killing dolphins.

If you object, "but what if ..." and pose some hefty moral cost for this (every child on earth loses an eye, a kidney, and a leg), then one of two things will occur:

  1. The person who claimed to place an absolute value will fold on that position and convert to a quantitative claim about the goodness of saving dolphins


  1. They will hold onto the qualitative claim and say that the wrong that would happen would happen.

There's actually another step usually involved. Generally, the person who believes everything is quantitative makes an assumption not shared by the people who hold to qualitatively distinct absolute values, and that assumption is about agency.

In the example I provided, it's really hard to imagine why or how not killing dolphins would result in this consequence of every child losing 3 things. Generally, the next step is for the objector to move to a more plausible example, but there's several issues:

First, you'll never get a completely convincing causal story that places the qualitative good directly opposite a quantity of some good. This is because many of the things people qualitatively value (such as freedom) relate to agency, and make it so that it's rarely if ever convincing that protecting the qualitative good is the cause of the quantitative loss. So then why should it be abandoned or reduced?


Two major modern approaches to ethics — deontology, or "duty-based" ethics; and consequentialism, or "consequence-based" ethics — are both based on fundamental principles, which function as absolute ethical rules. In the context of your question, the idea is that these fundamental principles can be used to resolve tensions between less-absolute rules. The fundamental principles will not be directly about, say, telling the truth or commitment murder. Instead, they'll be much more abstract, and the idea is that they'll tell us exactly what to do when the abstractions are replaced with concrete details of a particular situation. The model here is classical or Newtonian physics, where fundamental laws are highly abstract (F=ma, or force equals mass times acceleration) and applied to particular situations by filling in concrete details (the particular masses and forces involved in a given case).

The original version of consequentialism is called utilitarianism. For utilitarians, the fundamental principle is that an action is right if, and only if, it maximizes the total sum of pleasure (across all individuals) minus the total sum of suffering (across all individuals) that results from the action. So when we are faced with a tension between, say, telling the truth and saving a life (e.g., if I'm a gentile German harboring Jews during the Holocaust, and a SS officer comes to the door looking for Jews, should I lie to the SS officer?), utilitarianism would have us consider the total pleasure and pain that results from telling the truth or not. It's pretty plausible that lying would result in less total suffering, so utilitarianism would probably recommend that.

Deontology is associated with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is famously difficult to understand. Kant's fundamental principle is called the Categorical Imperative; he provided several different formulations of this principle, which do not obviously say the same thing. But the most popular version says that "we should never act in such a way that we treat humanity, whether in ourselves or in others, as a means only but always as an end in itself" (see here). In an (in)famous essay, Kant argues that lying to someone treats them as a means, not an end, and so we shouldn't lie to the murderer at the door. (Some defenders of Kant argue that this is a misreading; see here.)


So what I am curious is if anyone can explain to me what justification different philosophies use to justify absolute rules in ethics.

I feel you're thinking correctly about this. There can be no rules regarding what actions we should and should not perform since context is everything. Kant, in his explanation of the categorical imperative in a letter to the princess who was his pupil, made a mistake when he suggest lying is always a contravention of the imperative. This view is clearly incorrect because sometimes it is in everyone's best interest to tell a lie.

You seem to have concluded that any global rule for actions would lead to dilemmas and I'd agree. They'd also lead to some very inappropriate actions in certain contexts.

This problem is avoided by having rules that apply to intentions rather than actions. If our intentions are well-meaning then our actions will be ethically-sound. If we lie in order to save a life then our intentions are 'ethical' and the precise nature of our actions is irrelevant.

In Buddhism there is a legend or teaching story in which (in a previous life) the Buddha commits a murder in order to save his fellow passengers on a ferry. I imagine it is preserved because it tells us that intentions are what count, not the details of our actions.

But our actions will be very clumsy if we do not know out true situation, so for this approach to ethics the pursuit of knowledge becomes an ethical matter. Only someone with full knowledge of their situation could properly match their intentions to their actions so that their actions will achieve what they intend.

So a rule that applies to intentions, such as the doctor's rule of 'do no harm', can be global without causing problems. Another way to say this might be that ethics is about what happens in our consciousness, not what our bodies do.

This approach allows the possibility that, say, shooting Hitler in 1933 would have been an ethically-sound action. Perhaps not, but it would be possible.

I wish Kant hadn't shot himself in the foot with his poor explanation of the CI. In Kingsely's 19th-century morality story The Water Babies there is a character called Mrs Do-as-you-would-be-done-by'. This seems a good phrase to sum up the imperative. It places no restriction on actions but only on intentions.

I know of no knowledge-based ethical scheme that bans any action for such a ban would, as you say, backfire now and again. For banned actions we would have to look at faith-based systems or systems based on philosophical speculation and ideology.

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